“The digital divide [difference between those with basic technology literacy and those without it] affects us all, and as we move further into a technology-based society, digital inclusion ensures that all individuals can participate fully in the economic, educational, civic and social activities of our communities,” a program description posits.
Conversations touched on a range of sub topics — race factors, broadband access, media roles, civic engagement, tech careers, learning standards and more. For the hundred or so present, this meeting of minds offers a unique opportunity to catch-up on who is doing what in terms of Minnesota’s digital inclusion aspirations.
And I couldn’t agree more with the premise of this gathering, which is why I’m here today.
Through firsthand experience and second hand storytelling, we’ve witnessed the positive outcomes of many great digital inclusion efforts happening across Minnesota. So, instead of writing an article today about the next startup company — which would be both easier and more popular with our audience — I’m writing about a matter that most of Minnesota’s tech industry could care less about: the future prosperity of Minnesota as it relates to fundamental technology skills.
Point blank, the Internet is a necessary tool for functioning in society today.
Simplistically speaking, digital inclusion a function of access (device+connection), education (training + testing), and application (employment + entrepreneurship); it predominantly affects the young and old, the disenfranchised and the disabled. As Brad Von Bank, a former Target exec and pioneer of Reve Academy in North Minneapolis best said earlier:
“When you combine our education gaps with our technology gaps, we have a competitive gap.”
Reve Academy’s creative/tech/business model has emerged one of the most promising digital inclusion projects in Minneapolis. As someone who is personally driving towards a better solution through the re-investment of of time, energy and cash — I have huge respect and appreciation for those, like Brad and company, who are leading by doing.
Yet with all the positive energy in the air today and all the potential for impact — it is with nothing but love for and loyalty to our great state that I share candid thoughts around the future of digital inclusion as it relates to Minnesota. After observing and studying this situation for many years, conversing and collaborating with a diverse range of individuals and groups, I present the following barriers and opportunities:
+High on emotion. There’s plenty of deeply passionate and well intended people involved in the conversation and ongoing efforts. Yet with all the energies expended, resources invested and time spent talking — there’s very little hard facts available around this topic. When anecdotal stories and subjective viewpoints are dominating the direction and there’s a void in hard facts and transparency, no-one wins. One alarming fact that receives little to no attention: the scope of the digital divide problem in Minnesota or the rate at which it’s accelerating remains largely unknown.
Reality: You simply can’t solve for a problem if you don’t understand the extent of it. Until there is sufficient R&D invested into the extent of this matter, any proposed solution is a lost cause.
+Sector imbalance. There are over 2,000 technology companies in Minnesota and about five of them showed up today. The nonprofit, education and government orgs are here in force, but when it comes to the digital inclusion conversation, private enterprise is completely disengaged. There continues to be a lack of express concern stemming from that direction, which is an amoral prerogative — no one owe’s anything to anyone, ever. But don’t expect our tech industry to become internationally competitive without including those outside of it, those in the margin and most importantly the youth of today.
Reality: the public sector (manifested through government, nonprofit and education) is inherently resistant to systemic change and more often than not is in defense of mediocrity when it comes to getting serious about such issues as digital inclusion.
+Leadership failure. The TLC is great in theory and it clearly adds value towards addressing the digital divide in Minnesota. In execution, however, it lacks vision and bold action towards changing the situation. As an organically formed ‘convener of conveners’ it must evolve and grow to become better at its stated mission.
Reality: The TLC was formed in 2006 and eight years later, there’s little to no tangible outcome at any scale, and no signs of traction that indicate a closing of the divide or bridging of the gap. Something needs to change from within this group before it can stimulate serious and sustainable action. It (or something like it) needs to become so effective that it literally puts itself out of commission. As a TLC member, I hold myself as accountable as anyone for this.